Teaching and Learning in China

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Harrow International School Beijing China


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What is it like to teach in an international school in China?

I should have known that China has the largest education system in the world, but I hadn’t really thought about it until I flew over last week to work with colleagues at Harrow International School in Beijing, China. This post shares the challenges international teachers endure and what I have learned from my travels …

Teacher Workforce

There are 22 million people that live in Beijing; small when compared to the 26 million people living in Shanghai. Altogether, there are 514,000 schools supporting 264 million pupils – a total of 15 million teachers support them (WEForum). I haven’t got the statistics to hand for independent and international or state-organised schools (writing this on the plane home), but in comparison to England, our workforce is a mere drop in the ocean.

English schools – around 32,000 of them (23,000 state schools) – supporting approximately 8 million pupils – employ 453,000 state school teachers. This number rises to one million when you include other types of educational institutions.

Just Great Teaching

Part of the reason for writing my new book was because I was frustrated with politicians who continued to cite China (and Shanghai maths in particular) as ‘the next thing’ for English schools to do (c2010). Education minister Nick (blogging cherry-picker) Gibb has continued to pursue Mandarin teaching, Shanghai maths and spends public money visiting China on a regular basis. I can forgive him (slightly) for his excursions, having now visited, one can see why any educator would want to learn good practice from one of the largest education systems in the world.

Chinese schools are well-known for their style of teaching, creating a culture in which pupils clean their schools and a regular, morning exercise routine. For me, this is nothing to baulk about, we could do much to improve our education system in England – and in our society – if our young people learned to respect their environment and participate in communal activities.

For international schools such as Harrow, who blend a British curriculum with Chinese culture, it is inspiring to see how well they are achieving. The school was first established in 2005 and is growing pupil and teaching staff numbers on an annual basis. This summer, they have achieved their best examination results to date and welcome pupils back to school next week.

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Growing pupil numbers…

Harrow International resides in the North East of Beijing and now has a pupil population of 1,447. Many of the teaching staff are British, with a large number of Chinese nationals working in the classroom and pastoral side of the school, with Australians, Kiwis and South Africans generally making up the other staffing demographics.

On arrival to the school, the summer holidays have been used to update the school site with building and maintenance work evident across the campus. On day one, I worked with 70 middle leaders to support their – already existing – coaching programme and introduce several strategies for the heads of department and heads of year to use with their teams.

On day two, it was fascinating to sit in and listen to the headteacher’s ‘welcome back’ speech. I felt like I was a new member of staff, learning about all the new people joining the school, building projects, admissions and examination results, as well as the vision roadmap for the year ahead. Following on from the morning introductions, I spent the rest of the day working with a jam-packed hall, unpicking teacher workload, metacognition and classroom strategies with ~150 primary and secondary teachers and classroom assistants.

Why leave the U.K. to teach elsewhere?

As I continue to visit and work with schools across the world, I am starting to understand first-hand, why British teachers are leaving behind our (not-so-big) education system. When surveying the teaching and support staff in the room, reports, lack of time, marking and meetings were the greatest workload burden on staff. Having asked this question to almost 20,000 teachers over the last two years, this is not a surprise to me.

As I work with more independent and international schools, ‘reports’ is nothing new either, yet seems to be the greatest burden on independent teachers. Under the pressures of ‘It’s what parents want’ and that ‘Parents pay for their child’s education’, you can understand why any school would want to offer the best service it possibly can to its community. However, on the topic of improving reports to parents, here are some of the best ideas I have encountered on my travels:

Improving workload and efficiency…

  • Some schools have ditched paper altogether, opting for digital reporting only.
  • This is clearly better for the environment, reducing the need for pupils to take the report home and any potential of it ‘getting lost’ along the way(!). This also saves significant sums of money on printing and postage costs. Of course, these costs must be balanced against the annual costs for an edtech solution.
  • Some schools are reporting to parents once a year (instead of once a term), even examination groups, which has significantly reduced teacher workload.
  • In the schools where edtech options are being used, voice and video automation are being used. For me, this option brings many benefits: The pupil and parent can ‘hear’ or ‘see’ the teacher. The school can map all analytics, from clicks and automatic alerts to demographic data and listening length.
  • This depth of analysis far outweighs any paper system a school uses, which offers no data whatsoever. Apart from the report ‘being delivered’, schools do not actually know if parents are actually reading the report.
  • Evidence and impact is considered, but I would add one further suggestion for all schools. In the room at Harrow, I asked who ‘taught the most pupils?’ and one teacher came up to me during a break and said: “I teach 380 pupils per week.”
  • One teacher in every school will always teach the most pupils – this is a common factor in every school. What school leaders must do regarding any policy, is work backwards from this person’s workload perspective.
  • Only last week, an experienced teacher told me that an incoming MAT was shipping in ‘Powerpoint templates’ that teachers had to use for every lesson.
  • Almost every (English) school disaggregates report writing throughout the latter part of the year – typically from February onwards – meaning, report writing is staggered to match the season, the age group of the pupil and hopefully, their curriculum pathway.
  • One final thought for every school leader. If you ask a teacher to complete a report, let’s assume it takes at least 5 minutes to complete the minimum fields required within a report to a good standard… On this basis, it would take this member of staff 1,900 minutes to complete, which is 31.6 hours – an entire working week – on top of classroom contact-time!

I suspect British teachers have always looked for experiences to teach abroad for decades. I did too in 1997 when I left to teach in Nigeria. Today, with excruciating workload levels, we will continue to lose many British teachers to other regions across the world. What I hope to do over the coming months is to research why teachers who choose to stay in teaching, yet leave the U.K., where are they going and why?

I am sure China, the largest education system in the world, doesn’t come without its problems, but if we in England cannot sort out some of the pressing issues in our (relatively) small setting, what hope do we have for our current and future cohort of teachers?

5 thoughts on “Teaching and Learning in China

  1. You are right. teachers are bearing unnecessary workload throughout the year in form of writing comments, collecting data,organizing it and then delivering to parents. I think they hardly get time to research and enhancing their knowledge.

  2. My partner and I left the UK to work in an international high school in Bangkok five years ago (I’m a secondary English teacher; my partner a primary teacher). After four years abroad, we returned last year for mainly personal reasons and taught for one academic year in an improving state school in the UK. By December, we were applying for jobs back in Bangkok such was the realisation that teaching abroad and teaching in the UK are barely the same job. The workload, the unrealistic expectations, poor salary and the daily battle with apathetic students became a grind that we were not happy to be a part of again. I am now two weeks back into the new school year in a large international school in Bangkok teaching students from over 40 different countries. The high workload is still part of the job, although I do not take work home and never work a weekend. I have to be in school by 7.30 and rarely leave before 4.30; however, the pay is roughly 50% better than I was receiving in the UK – I have been teaching for 15 years and the UK school would only employ me as a returning teacher on M5. The students’ work ethic here is vastly more mature than the majority of British students. There is a real culture of wanting to learn here and teachers are respected, with classroom disruption virtually non-existent. I have worked for 11 years in the UK and I am starting my fifth abroad and I sad to say I’m not sure if I will ever teach back in the UK again.

  3. We also help with our Teaching Abroad Programs. We place passionate, skilled, student-centered educators in excellent schools worldwide. Providing passionate, skilled, student centered educators to international schools worldwide.

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